Page:EB1911 - Volume 27.djvu/219
[War of 1899–1902
campaign. It opened with the investment of Mafeking by a Transvaal force under P. A. Cronje and the envelopment of Kimberley by Free State commandos under General Wessels. But these were minor operations. Operations in Natal.The main Boer effort was made in Natal, where their forces were commanded by P. J. Joubert, while Lieut.-General Sir George White was the British commander-in-chief. The northern part of Natal presented two faces of a triangle to the two enemies, the short base being formed by the Tugela river. Close to the head of the triangle at Dundee and Glencoe was posted a small British force under Major-General Sir W. Penn Symons. Against this force there advanced a Boer force under Lukas Meyer from the east, and, more slowly, the foremost portion of the main Boer army from the north, while at the same time other Transvaalers descended upon the railway between Glencoe and Ladysmith, and the Free Staters from the passes of the Drakensberg advanced towards Ladysmith, the British centre of operations at which the reinforcements sent from India gathered. On the 20th of October the Dundee brigade vigorously and successfully attacked Talana Hill, and drove back Lukas Meyer, but this success was dearly bought. Symons was mortally wounded, and 226 officers and men were killed and wounded. Half the mounted men lost their way in attempting to pass the enemy’s flank and were taken, and the brigade, threatened to its left rear by Joubert’s advance and by the force that had seized the railway, only escaped being enveloped by retreating upon Ladysmith, where it arrived in an exhausted state on the 26th of October. Meanwhile Sir George White had discovered the Boer force on the railway, and, though anxious on account of the advance of the Free Staters, on the 21st, stimulated by the news of Talana, he sent out a force of all arms under General (Sir John) French to drive the Boers from Elandslaagte and so to clear Symons’s line of retreat. This was accomplished by French and his subordinate, Colonel (Sir) Ian Hamilton, in the action of Elandslaagte on the 21st of October (British losses, 258 all ranks). But on the 22nd the Free Staters’ advance caused the victorious force to be recalled to Ladysmith, and the third action north of that town, Rietfontein (24th), was only a demonstration to cover the retirement of the Dundee force. By the 29th of October all the British forces at the front and their reinforcements had fallen in on Ladysmith, which the Transvaalers on the north and east and the Free Staters on the west side began to invest. Before the junction of the two allied wings was complete Sir George White attempted by a general attack to break up their line. The result of this decision was the battle of Lombard’s Kop, outside Ladysmith, in which the whole of the available British force was engaged. The engagement was disastrous to the British, who had undertaken far too comprehensive an attack, and the Natal Field Force was obliged to fall back upon Ladysmith with the loss of 1500 men, including a large number of prisoners belonging to the left column under Lieut.-Colonel F.R.C. Carleton, who were cut off at Nicholson’s Nek and forced to surrender by a mixed force of Transvaalers and Free Staters under Christian de Wet. From that day the rôle of the Natal Field Force was changed from that of a mobile field army into that of a garrison, and two days later it was completely isolated, but not before General French had succeeded in escaping south by train, and the naval authorities had been induced by Sir George White’s urgent appeals to send into the town a naval brigade with a few guns of sufficient range and calibre to cope with the heavy position artillery which Joubert was now able to bring into action against the town.
Buller’s Arrival.General Sir Redvers Buller, who had been appointed to the supreme command in South Africa as soon as it was perceived that war was imminent — his force being one army corps in three divisions, the divisional generals being Lord Methuen, Sir W. Gatacre and Sir C. F. Clery — arrived in Cape Town, ahead of his troops, on the day following Lombard’s Kop. The situation which presented itself was delicate in the extreme. In Natal practically the whole of the available defence force was swallowed up by the steady success of the invasion; on the western frontier two British towns were isolated and besieged; and Boer commandos were on the point of invading Cape Colony, where the Dutch population seemed on the verge of rebellion. The army corps was about to arrive, practically as a whole unit, in South Africa; but it was evident that the exigencies of the situation, and the widely divided areas of invasion, would at least defer the execution of the plan which had been formed for an invasion of the Orange Free State from Cape Colony. The first duty was to effect the relief of the British forces which had been rendered immobile, and another duty imposed by political circumstances was to relieve Kimberley (where Cecil Rhodes was), while the prospect of rebellion forbade the complete denudation of the central part of the colony. Thus Sir Redvers Buller had no choice but to disintegrate the army corps. Clery and some brigades were sent to Natal; Gatacre with less than a brigade, instead of a division, was dispatched to Queenstown, Cape Colony; while Lord Methuen, with a division, was sent off to relieve Kimberley. As November wore on, the situation did not improve. Cape Colony was invaded; while in Natal a flying column of Boers, pushing down from the Tugela, for a short time isolated the newly-arrived force under General (Sir) H. J. T. Hildyard, which opposed Joubert’s advance on Pietermaritzburg at Estcourt. The situation in Natal seemed so serious that on the 22nd of November Sir Redvers Buller left Cape Town and sailed for Durban. In the meantime Lord Methuen had commenced his march to the relief of Kimberley. He encountered resistance at Belmont on the 23rd, but attacking resolutely he drove the Boers out of their strong positions. Failures of Methuen and Gatacre.Two days later he won another action at Enslin. Still persevering he moved on to the Modder, where he was seriously opposed by De la Rey and P. A. Cronje, the latter having posted down from Mafeking with 2000 men and arrived on the previous night. The Boers, who held a river line, kept the British attack at bay all day, but eventually fell back, relinquishing the position after dark, as their right had been turned by General Pole-Carew’s brigade. It was a long and wearing fight, in which the British lost 485 killed and wounded, and what was more serious, Lord Methuen (himself wounded) found that his force had exhausted its forward momentum, and that he would have to collect supplies and reinforcements on the Modder before lighting his next battle. The extent of the operations and the gravity of the situation now began to be felt in England; every available man was called up from the reserves, and the war office made what at the time appeared to be adequate provision for the waste which it was seen would occur. On the 30th of November the mobilization of a sixth division was ordered, offers of colonial aid were accepted, and every facility provided for local recruiting in the South African ports. Thus in the early days of December confidence was considerably restored. Buller was arranging for the relief of Ladysmith, which had already shown its spirit by two successful sorties against the besiegers’ batteries. In every theatre the British strength was consolidating. But the full significance of the situation presented by these two small nations in arms had not yet been appreciated. The confidence restored by the lull during the early part of December was destined to be roughly shattered. On the 10th of December Gatacre essayed a night march and attack upon the enemy’s position at Stormberg, and, misled by his guides in unknown ground, was himself surprised and forced to return with a loss of 719. On the following day Lord Methuen delivered an attack upon Cronje’s position between the Upper Modder river and the Kimberley road, a line of kopjes called Spytfontein and Magersfontein. In a night attack on Magersfontein hill the Highland brigade came under heavy fire while still in assembly formation, and lost its general, A.G. Wauchope, and 750 men, and in the battle by day which followed the other brigades were unable to retrieve the failure, the total losses amounting to about 950. But even this could be suffered with equanimity, since Buller was about to bring his own force into play, and Buller, it was confidently supposed, would not fail. He had collected at Chieveley in Natal a brigade of mounted men, four brigades of infantry and six batteries of artillery, and he carried with him the trust alike of the army and the nation.